Ukrainian government upsets the applecart

At the beginning of last month I drew attention to the striking similarities between the anti-government protests in Ukraine and in Thailand, plus the one vital difference: that the Ukrainian opposition still put its faith in democracy, while the Thai opposition was looking to undemocratic solutions.

That difference remains. The Thai government of Yingluck Shinawatra is still proposing to hold elections on 2 February, even though the opposition is boycotting and doing everything it can to disrupt them. In Ukraine, however, president Viktor Yanukovych clearly has no intention of calling an early election if he can possibly avoid it.

But the similarities are still there as well. In each case, the government may reasonably think that time is on its side. With no visible progress, most protesters eventually get sick of protesting and decide to go home. The key objective for an embattled government is to hold its nerve (and, of course, hold the loyalty of the forces defending it) until that dynamic starts to kick in.

Conversely, a government in that position needs to avoid giving its opponents some fresh grievance to rally around.

This week it’s been suggested that both sets of protests are losing momentum. The BBC yesterday reported that police in Bangkok said “that the crowds on the streets were gradually dwindling in number.” In Kiev, the loss of interest is more obvious – perhaps due in part to the fact that it’s the middle of winter – with numbers of protesters clearly down on the levels of before Christmas.

But that could all change now that the Ukrainian government, in a surprise move, has passed new laws against protest activity. The laws were rushed through parliament yesterday and have raised fears of a violent government crackdown.

As the BBC reports:

On Thursday, MPs from Mr Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions together with the communists and a number of independents passed the laws amid scenes of chaos in parliament.

The measures were pushed through in a matter of minutes when lawmakers simply raised their hands, despite the protests of opposition deputies who had earlier blocked the speaker’s platform to try to disrupt the voting.

One of the laws bans any unauthorised installation of tents, stages or amplifiers in public places. Those who violate the law now face a hefty fine or detention.

Another bill provides a punishment of one year of corrective labour for slandering government officials.

One opposition leader described the move as “nothing else but an overthrow of the constitutional system and a power grab in Ukraine.” The US state department, in a strongly worded response, said that both “the process and the substance” of the changes “cast serious doubt on Ukraine’s commitment to democratic norms.”

While a government MP, according to the BBC, said that the new laws “aimed to prevent further escalation of the ongoing political crisis,” one has to think that the most likely result is the exact opposite. For an opposition worried that its supporters’ commitment might be ebbing away, this is the very thing to re-energise them.

It’s not clear that Yanukovych and his allies have really thought this through. If you want to use force against protesters, the presence or absence of laws isn’t the problem: what matters is how much bloodshed you’re willing to tolerate and how much you can count on the police or the armed forces. Signalling your intention by passing a law just tips off your opponents and gives them the chance to marshal resistance.

On the other hand, the laws may well be intended just as a sort of warning shot across the bow of the protesters. But since many of the opposition’s supporters seem to be losing interest anyway, why should the government want to risk altering that trend?

It’s certainly possible that the thought of an impending crackdown might send more people home, but if it has the opposite effect – that is, if the protesters are willing to call the government’s bluff – then the president will face a serious dilemma, to retreat or escalate.

And what about the issue that set off the protests in the first place, namely closer relations with the European Union? The new legislation, by putting Ukraine further at odds with European standards, will only make it that much harder for Yanukovych to convince anyone, either the EU or his own voters, that he can be trusted to pursue the project of integrating Ukraine with Europe.

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